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WLP’s Kim McLarin on Being “Womanish”

WLP Associate Professor Kim McLarin

Novelist, essayist and Writing, Literature and Publishing Associate Professor Kim McLarin is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, as well as essays, short stories, a play, and two memoirs – Divorce Dog: Men, Motherhood and Midlife, and her latest book, Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks of Life and Love.

Molli DeRosa ’21 spoke with McLarin for Emerson Today about her new book and her affiliation with WGBH-TV’s Basic Black, a talk show addressing African American themes for the past 50 years.


ET: Where did the inspiration for your book Womanish come from?

KM: Everything I write comes equally from experience and observation: I see something or experience something and I begin to wonder about it. Everything grows from there, from wondering, thinking, trying not so much to find the answer, as Chekhov famously said, as simply to ask the question properly.


ET: Could you describe the word “womanish” for those who may not know the meaning?

KM: Womanish comes from a Black folk expression I heard growing up in Memphis. As Alice Walker pointed out in using the term to coin her famous word “womanist” (which is a Black feminist or a feminist of color), it means the opposite of girlish or childish. It means to be grown. It was often said of a girl who seemed to be acting older than she had a right to act, acting as if she knew what she was talking about. It means to be centered, clear-eyed, audacious. It means to be grown and fully in control of that fact.


ET: You mentioned this was a collection of essays. Who/where are the essays collected from? Why did you choose to format the book in this way?

KM: Some of these essays were previously published in various literary journals, including the New England Review and the Sewanee Review. Some of them are new for this collection. I put them together in a collection after noting that while I was writing about various issues and themes, I was always writing from a new place for me, a place of having achieved womanhood.


ET: How do you touch on the concept of intersectionality in your book?

KM: The collection does not so much touch on intersectionality as embodies it. My life is intersectional by definition, and thus so is my work.


ET: What do some of the essay topics include?

KM: Let’s see: beauty, Blackness, Whiteness, friendship, motherhood, mental health, the criminal injustice system, and online dating — to name a few.


ET: What other topics do you dream about writing about? Is there anything in the works?

KM: A writer always has something in the works. Usually several somethings. But to talk about them is to risk dissipating the energy.


ET: Could you talk about your work on WGBH’s Basic Black?

KM: I am proud to be associated with Basic Black, the longest-running program on public television focusing on the interests of Black people and other communities of color.

The show, which was originally called Say Brother, was created in 1968 during the height of the civil rights movement and has been going strong ever since. Every Friday, a panel of local and national thought leaders and experts sits down to discuss a range of issues, everything from Colin Kaepernick to the prevalence of diabetes in the Black community and more. I love being able to engage in serious, thought-provoking conversations around issues that are not generally given prominence in mainstream media outlets, and to do so with some of the sharpest minds in America. It’s a pleasure and an honor.


ET: What do you want readers to know about Womanish?
KM: I never know how to answer this question. What I want readers to know about Womanish is in Womanish. I don’t mean to sound flip, but that’s the truth. A novel, a short story, an essay is its own thing. It can be discussed but it cannot be reduced to that discussion. Whatever value it contains can only be obtained by experiencing it. That is to say: You have to read to find out.


McLarin will join Edwin Hill, MFA ’02, to read and discuss their work at a WLP Faculty/Alumni Reading Series event on Wednesday, March 20, 6:00-7:30 pm, in the Beard Room. On Thursday, April 18, 7:00-8:00 pm, she will give a reading at Porter Square Books, 25 White Street, Cambridge.

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